How Many Great Landscape Photos Exist Because of Being in the Right Place at the Right Time?

How Many Great Landscape Photos Exist Because of Being in the Right Place at the Right Time?

Almost regardless of the content in the scene, so much of what makes a great landscape photograph is simply being where you need to be at the right time. Would you rather be a skillful planner or would you accept pure dumb luck if it means you get a great shot?

Let's be totally clear, there is a lot more than just timing that goes into creating a beautiful landscape image. Your technical know-how, equipment selection, and your broad vision for the scene (how you choose to compose your scene) all play an integral role in crafting your final shot. At the same time, there is an enormous element of patience, waiting, planning, and luck that plays a role too. Your location may be epic, but you'll always be at the mercy of the elements and the mercy of your timing.

Take the above image for example; the location is pretty simple, generally not particularly picturesque. It's a small ridge east of my hometown in Colorado. It was winter last year (obviously) and I went for a drive hoping to shoot some images but mostly just wanting to experiment. I only have a 50mm and 85mm, so I chose the 50mm for this outing. It was freezing cold, wind blowing fresh snow combined with some fog (which is rare in Colorado) and low clouds right at the ridge. It also happened to be around the time the sun starts to dip behind the ridge which backlit the whole scene. I got lucky, plain and simple. The weather plus my timing all came together haphazardly and led me to one of my favorite images I've taken. 

Sometimes the weather just sucks, or the lighting is too flat, the season could be wrong, or disaster may have struck and altered the scenery (think wildfires or human expansion). At the end of the day, you being in the right place at the right time will always have an element of luck that contributes to your success. This may mean you need to visit the same location multiple times to get the shot you're after. It may mean that if you can't revisit a location and you landed an amazing shot anyway, you got lucky which makes your shot all the more special.

So what do you folks think? Do you agree that luck is always going to play a role in your landscape images? After all, as much as we might want to, we can't control the clouds, the wind, the weather, or anything else on that scale. I don't see anything wrong with admitting when luck played a major role. Hell, if it means that I get a shot I'm excited about, I'll take dumb luck any day. This isn't to say just wing it and hope for the best, by all means, put time into planning your adventures and do everything you can to set yourself up for success. Leave a comment below with your experience. Do you find that some of your favorite shots exist purely because of luck?

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21 Comments

well in my opinion, original photographers are heroes but i hate people taking a stupid pictures and Photoshop it to change everything in it and even original pictures looks ugly if you compare then. :(

I hate it when people beat me up, steal my money and shoot my dog. ;-)

Evan Kane's picture

A bit confused by what you mean?

Alex Armitage's picture

It's considered luck if you show up to a location for the first time and get something that may only happen once a year. It's considered hard work/persistence when you show up for the 16th visit and finally get something different.

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Alex, I agree. Anyone going to the same place over and over determined to get a specific shot is dedicate to the moment!

Matthew Saville's picture

I would take it a step further, and combine those two scenarios. If a photographer is truly experienced, and can actively "speak the language" of light in the outdoors, it is no longer just "lucky" to arrive in an area for the first time, discern where the best light will be, and position yourself to get a highly unique photo that even the "regulars" haven't seen yet.

But, yes, a dud sunset is a dud sunset, sometimes. And an off-the-hook sunset is just that. Still, even if I've never been somewhere before, I personally try my best to read the light and determine whether or not it's a good idea to get out of my tent at 5 AM, instead of sleeping in till 8... ;-)

My two cents, you are right, there is a lot to be said about being at the right place at the right time. And professional landscape photographers will tell you, what separates them from the masses is that they calculate the right date, where they want the sun, check the weather, recheck the weather, recheck the weather, and then if things go south they keep trying over and over and over and over until they stars align, the weather is perfect and everything just works. But before you find that perfect location at that perfect time, you need the skills to capture what is in front of you and yes, decent equipment helps as well.

I will say, when I travel and find a really great site, and it looks great, and you get "the shot"... "your shot"... I can't count the number of times someone near me says, "You should have been here yesterday (or last week, or last year, or...) it was so much better than this..." Well kiss my grits.

Evan Kane's picture

Hahaha, that line is great, "You should have been here yesterday". How do you even respond to that haha?

..."I was. It wasn't that great." ;-)

Leigh Miller's picture

A lot....I've been to the same spot many times without success only to have that once in a week shot with ideal light conditions.

All of them. Doesn't mean other variables don't come into play as well.

Eric Salas's picture

What people don't realize is that you're paying for my hours of sitting on my ass at locations to capture that "right place at the right time" photo.

I've never accidentally hiked 6 hours and accidentally packed all my photography gear. That'd be one hell of an accident.

Evan Kane's picture

Well said Eric. Even when luck comes into play, a great shot is almost never an accident.

I think it can be a both and. I once set up a time lapse night shot just trying to get the core of the milky way as it spins (or rather when we spin"). I went to bed letting my camera take the pics that I had preset. When I woke up and checked the photos I had totally unknowingly shit a time lapse of the northern lights in full color. It took skill for me to set it up but I was totally in the right place at the right time. They're amazing photos that I wish I had actually meant to take cause I could take more credit for how beautiful they are.

Shot not shit a time lapse. Lol.

Luck is just where preparation meets opportunity. Ansel Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez , New Mexico shot is a pretty famous example.

Matthew Saville's picture

The final chapter of Galen Rowell's Seminal book, Mountain Light, is by far the most eloquent discourse on this particular topic. I highly recommend the entire book to anyone who is passionate about the "right place, right time" mindset to landscape photography.

One of my favorite landscapes to photograph includes old farms after a fresh snow. I may spend many many miles trying to find that one that looks just right in the best light. Often driving numerous miles from my home and picking random country roads to drive down looking for that just right location. Is it luck that I picked a particular country road and found the best spot for that day?

Great article thanks for sharing.

I think it's a combination of effort and luck. You have to make the effort to be there when the light is good and in a location that inspires. This takes planning and time. You also need to be prepared with skill and an idea. With all that in place, you hope that the sky breaks, the clouds part (but don't leave), and you have your composition ready to take.

The true luck comes into play when you have an open mind to what the world presents at that moment. If your photographer's mind is nimble enough, you may capture something unexpected OR you get a seed for a concept that you can plan for next time. Either of those cases are wins and luck played a role in it.

Regardless, if you do all the steps and the light never lands, it is not a wasted effort. You got outside, you went somewhere. You can think about the experience and makes plans for the future. In my life, the purpose of beautiful photography is to inspire us to get outside, connect with others, and actively celebrate life. A road trip always ticks off those boxes :)

Evan Kane's picture

Really well put George :)

Pedro Quintela's picture

Beside visiting regularly the same locations I learned that we never abandon it before the good light hours. Many times the conditions appear to be bad but then the good light, colors appear from anywhere.
You have some good thoughts on your article. Congrats, Evan!